Experiencing Turbulence: The Rough and Tumble Life of A Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) are not typical. Through the Winter they prefer the rocky coast, foraging blithely among the smashing waves. Generally speaking, they’re unusual to see, not because they’re rare, but because waves smashing on rocks is not habitat that suits the human animal that much. Come Spring the Harlequin leaves our rocky coast and goes North to raise this year’s family in the thrashing and fast moving current of Arctic rivers and streams. All of this is why it took us a moment to identify the injured duck brought down from Crescent City in the middle of last month.

A female Harlequin, she’d suffered quite a trauma. Found among the minefield of rocks that makes up the beach on the North side of Crescent City, she had a severe laceration on the top of her head, and her left cheek was badly cut, part of her feathered face hanging loose.

Somehow she’d been battered. By the recent storms? By a dog unleashed? We’ll never know. We do know that she needed care and given her dark colors among the dark rocks, her small size and the vastness of the sea, she was very lucky that she was found.

The lacerations looked bad, but in fact, they were easily treated. Each of her limbs was intact; she was in  good health. We cleaned and dressed her wounds and prepared for the real task of her care: keeping a duck who loves the turbulent sea, fast moving water, and the freedom to dive against the rocks for her dinner of mollusks and crustacea in a calm pool in the middle of a small ranch a mile from the nearest saltwater.

Fortunately she accepted our diet of krill and small fish purchased at the pet store as a workable substitute for barnacles and tiny crabs.

A deep laceration on the Harlequin’s face would likely have lead to her death had she not been spotted and rescued.

While a Western grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) is not one of her own kind, housing patients with others, usually helps reduce the stress of their temporary captivity.


After more than three weeks in care, she was at last ready to go home. Her wounds fully healed, in good body condition, her blood work good, we took her to Trinidad. We are fortunate with most seabirds that they don’t rely on specific territory as much as bountiful habitat. We didn’t need to return her to Crescent City – she’s soon going leave our region for the high Arctic. With a sheltered ocean beach that is just a quick paddle around the corner to the open swell of the Pacific, Trinidad offers an excellent place to release oceanic birds that is also relatively safe for human caregivers to reach.


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Here is the sequence of photos from her release on March 8.

Searching beneath the waves…

And finding food!

At home again.


And here we left her: to her own life, her privacy, her autonomy, her wild and mysterious freedom to be the kind of duck she is. Our world is a many-roomed mansion, and we enter few of its doors. Yet our actions have impact everywhere. Even the Harlequin must be considered.

An interesting article on Harlequin Ducks and the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil spill ]

From where this duck came and to where she will go, we’ll never know. Our concern, and what we can do, is make certain that she and her kind are able to freely live their lives. Your generosity made her success in rehabilitation possible.

Thank you for supporting the work of Bird Ally X and Humboldt Wildlife Care Center. Your love for the Wild makes a difference for thousands of our wild neighbors each year. Even those who you may never see.

All photos: Laura Corsiglia/Bird Ally X